Lead image credit: NASA

US astronomers want a new space-based telescope to search for exoplanets, and perhaps the project can’t come soon enough. The Hubble Space Telescope’s scientific operations are on hold for the second time this year. After an extended offline period this summer, Hubble is in ‘Safe Mode’ as NASA scientists investigate what’s gone wrong with the telescope.

NASA writes, ‘NASA is continuing work to resolve an issue that has suspended science operations on the Hubble Space Telescope. The science instruments entered a safe mode configuration on Oct. 25 after detecting a loss of specific data synchronization messages.’ The Hubble team is working to isolate the problem on circuitry in the Control Unit hardware that is part of the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit. The Control Unit generates synchronization messages for the onboard instruments.

In addition to analyzing instruments, the team is also working to figure out a workaround for the issue, including ways to possibly change the instrument flight software to check for lost messages and compensate for them without instruments needing to go into safe mode. Possible workarounds would first be tested using ground simulators.

‘Over the weekend of Oct. 30, the team prepared to turn on parts of the Near Infrared Camera and Multi Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) instrument to collect data on this issue, allowing the team to determine how frequently this problem occurs,’ NASA writes. ‘Installed in 1997, NICMOS has been inactive since 2010, when the Wide Field Camera 3 became operational. NICMOS allowed the team to use an instrument to collect information on these lost messages while keeping the active instruments off as a safety precaution. Since NICMOS was recovered on Nov. 1, no additional synchronization messages have been lost.’

Hopefully, the Hubble team can identify and address the problem. When the Hubble Space Telescope went down earlier this year, it was out of commission for a month. Although the issue was eventually solved, it could’ve spelled the end of the Hubble Space Telescope’s operations.

The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, has been a vital research tool for astronomers and astrophysicists. The telescope has already successfully conducted its primary mission and has been serviced in-orbit five times by astronauts, including the most recent servicing mission (STS-125) in May 2009. Another space service mission seems incredibly unlikely, as NASA no longer uses the shuttles needed for servicing missions. NASA will continue to work remotely to fix Hubble.

On November 5, the Hubble Space Telescope account tweeted that the NASA team investigating the issue hopes to turn one of the telescope’s instruments back on for scientific operations within the next week. Still, it’s unclear when the telescope will be fully operational. We hope it’s soon, as the Hubble Space Telescope captures some of the most incredible photos of our universe.

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